SOUTH BEND – In a Todd Marinovich-like daze, I find myself repeatedly muttering “How in the world did we get here?”
On Sunday evening, Notre Dame (11-0) completed its ascension – at least for the next five days – to the top of the college football world, as it was named to the No. 1 ranking in the latest BCS standings.
At the same time, three time zones away, USC coach Lane Kiffin was explaining to the media that his job status wasn't in question despite his being “extremely disappointed with this season.”
How in the world did this happen? Boy Wonder is in trouble and (used to be) Coach Blunder is riding high.
Three months ago to the day, the Trojans were voted to the No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly didn't even know who his quarterback was. But on Sunday, Kelly explained that there is little magic involved in his program being ranked No. 1 for the first time since Nov. 1993.
“Well, I think it's still about how we got here and the preparation and how these guys transformed themselves into champions by their habits and how they go to work every day,” Kelly said. “It doesn't mean much if we don't prepare.”
Yeah, preparation is certainly important, but so is having the nation's best defense, not turning the ball over, and oh, being ridiculed for decades, well, that actually helps too.
Over the last decade or so, USC (7-4) has been notorious for its hard-hitting defense that wreaked havoc on opposing offenses. This year, that is Notre Dame's calling card.
How good is the Irish defense? Well, their most ferocious player last season left the program and Notre Dame actually got better. A lot better.
What's ironic leading up to the Notre Dame at USC match-up on Saturday (8 p.m. ABC) is that the same thing that has sent the Trojans spiraling and Kiffin clinging, is the same thing that Notre Dame rectified to become relevant in the national picture again.
Last season, the Irish (8-5 in 2011) ranked 118th nationally in turnover margin after committing 29 turnovers (17 interceptions), however, Kelly made that a point of emphasis in the spring and fall camp and his team has committed just 14 giveaways (26th nationally) this year.
Kiffin's team on the same token has gone the opposite direction.
A year ago, the then 10-2 Trojans committed just 18 turnovers, but this season they have given the ball away 29 times with two games still remaining.
“I think the number one glaring thing in our losses has been turnovers,” Kiffin said after losing to UCLA on Saturday. “We haven't gotten many and we've had way too many.”
There is an old adage that tough times don't last, tough people do. In the case of Notre Dame, that isn't entirely true, because the tough times sure as heck did last… and last… and last. But Kelly said two decades of disappointment – and in the case of his current team – being questioned repeatedly, has played an integral part in the program earning its place at No. 1.
“Well, I think it's- in any program, whether you're at Notre Dame or for me at Grand Valley State when we built national championship programs, there's going to be a core guy, core group of guys that have to go through those tough times,” Kelly explained. “Every group that I've had that has gone through those tough times, they're stronger for it. So I think there's no question that this group is stronger because of the experiences that they've had along the way.”
Sure, losing to Tulsa and Navy (twice) will do that to a guy.
But USC went through hard times also. For about a month. The Trojans were sanctioned by the NCAA for cheating (can you imagine Tim Brown's Heisman Trophy being taken away?) and they had to endure the hardship of an 8-5 season in 2010.
Kelly's program isn't as sexy as the Trojans (it's doubtful that Snoop Dogg will be getting fashizzle on the sidelines with a Catholic priest anytime soon), but through recruiting, teaching, screaming, a daily focus on details, more screaming, and not accepting any excuses, he's brought the Irish program back.
“If we're not prepared we're not going to win,” Kelly said. “For us it'll be about being consistent with what we've done up to this point.”
Oh, that is how we got here.